SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has dismissed top officials in the wake of a recent standoff with South Korea, state media reported Friday, a move that suggests the young leader holds them responsible for allowing the confrontation to nearly spin out of control.
The rival Koreas earlier this week threatened strikes against each other before agreeing on measures to reduce animosity. The standoff began after land mines that Seoul says the North planted maimed two South Korean soldiers. Seoul responded by resuming propaganda broadcasts critical of Kim’s authoritarian rule for the first time in 11 years. Pyongyang then threatened to destroy the South Korean loudspeakers, and Seoul says the rivals exchanged artillery fire at the border.
During a ruling Workers’ Party meeting, Kim hailed the agreement, which came after marathon talks, as a “crucial landmark” that put “catastrophic” inter-Korean relations back on track toward reconciliation, according to Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency. Kim also dismissed an unspecified number of members of the party’s Central Military Commission, which handled the standoff, a KCNA dispatch said.
It gave no reasons for the dismissals, but outside analysts said they may have been sacked because they misjudged South Korea’s strong response to the mine blasts.
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North Korea is intolerant of any outside criticism of its political system and worries, analysts say, that the broadcasts heard over the border could demoralize frontline troops and residents and eventually weaken Kim’s leadership.
South Korea switched off its loudspeakers Tuesday after North Korea expressed “regret” that the South Korean soldiers were injured by the mine explosion. The vague agreement allows Pyongyang to continue denying it laid the mines and Seoul to claim that the term “regret” signals an apology.
It was not known if the dismissed North Korean officials received heavier punishment other than being removed from their party posts. Since taking over after the death of his dictator father Kim Jong Il in late 2011, Kim Jong Un has orchestrated a series of executions and purges in what foreign analysts say was an attempt to bolster this grip on power. South Korea’s spy service said that in April Kim had his defense chief executed for disloyalty.
South Korean officials hope the agreement will help improve ties, but the two Koreas have a history of failing to follow through on past reconciliation accords, and their ties have been bad since conservatives took power in Seoul in early 2008.
In an indication that North Korea’s hard-line stance hasn’t changed despite the agreement, Kim said the deal was achieved not on the negotiating table but thanks to his country’s military capability based on its “nuclear deterrent,” according to the KCNA. He was quoted as saying the North’s military will guarantee peace on the Korean Peninsula.
During the party meeting Kim also ordered soldiers to help a recently flooded city, a sign of his need to show his people he cares about a decrepit economy.
Kim Jong Un has vowed to revive the economy and boost standards of living even as he pushes development of nuclear-armed missiles condemned by neighboring countries and the United States.